The Four Gospels Jesus Prophet and Embodiment of the Kingdom of

According to Mark's Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth preached the reign of God and thus oriented his heaven to that alternative horizon which Jewish eschatologi-cal hopes had kept in view (as is evident from texts like 4Q 521 from the Dead Sea Scrolls; see Vermes 1995: 244). Present political and social arrangements were not the norm, therefore. The imminent arrival of the messianic age heralded new priorities and broadened horizons (Luke 4: 16; Matt. 11: 2 ff.). Political authority in Jerusalem was in fact wielded by the priestly aristocracy and the Judean ruling class. The fact that the challenge is against this group rather than the Romans is merely indicative of the locus of political power. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus challenges a culture of status and customary practice and institutions. In 10: 42 the disciples want to sit and rule, but are offered only baptism and a cup of suffering.

God's kingdom was the major theme of Jesus' proclamation, exemplified in acts of power and compassion to the disadvantaged and in riddling challenges to hearers through the parables. The frequent designation of him by his followers as Messiah, the anointed and expected king who would bring peace, prosperity, and justice as heralded by the prophecy of Isaiah (Isa. 11), continued that biblical tradition. Despite the attachment to David and the dynasty, exemplified in Psalms 89 and 132, there is throughout the scriptures an ambivalence towards monarchy. On occasion this can take the form of antimonarchical sentiments (1 Sam. 8). In the books of Kings the activities of the Davidic dynasty are a catalogue of misdeeds and iniquity which ultimately puts the whole dynasty in jeopardy. The Torah hardly contemplates monarchy with equanimity (Deut. 17: 14ff.). Its vision of society is of a community which, if not exactly egalitarian, works according to a vision of social intercourse in which injustice is corrected, whether through the cancellation of debts (Deut. 15) or the Jubilee (Lev. 25, though even here the exigencies of the "real world" demand some kind of dilution of the ideal). Monarchy involved military power and the oppression of the people in the name of expansion, a fact of life in Solomon's reign, ruefully reflected in the law of the king in Deuteronomy 17. It demanded centralization, achieved in the reign of David and Solomon by the creation of a new capital at the Jebusite city of Jerusalem. That center was given ideological justification when the portable ark was sited there and, under Solomon, a temple built to house it and act as a demonstrable sight of God's presence with Israel.

The prophets criticized the distortions of the understanding of divine righteousness. The outsiders Amos and Jeremiah paid the penalty for their contumacious condemnation of false prophecy and of the complacent delusions of grandeur and safety which religion gave to the political establishment in Jerusalem. Israel's reflection on its God and its politics involved recognition that settlement in the land was a mixed blessing. Not only is there nostalgia for the time before arrival in the Promised Land (Hosea) but there is also a frank recognition that settlement meant accommodation with a very different culture, the culture of Canaan, which was an expression of the aspirations of a settled, rather than migrant, people with a severely puritanical culture. The prophets cut isolated figures (e.g. 1 Kgs. 18; Isa. 20), protesting against the dominant thrust of their nation's life, particularly its idolatry and departure from the norms of social justice as set out in the ancestral traditions. The prophets are true radicals, objecting to the modernizing tendencies of their day, the compromises with the lifestyle and values of the surrounding culture, and looking back to the roots of the nation's life (e.g. Hosea 2: 14).

In his words about the kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven, Jesus never offers his hearers a detailed description of it. Instead, he uses stories and sayings to prompt hearers (and also the later readers of his sayings in the Gospels) to think and behave differently, to repent and believe in the good news of the kingdom of God (Mark 1: 15). The Gospels are full of challenges to conventional wisdom about monarchy. Jesus is presented as a humble king (Matt. 21: 5), in contrast with Herod who is no true king of the Jews (2: 2). Herod slaughters the innocents (2: 16ff.), whereas the true king reacts positively to children (18: 2; 19: 14; 20: 31). Those who are pronounced blessed share the characteristics of this humble king (5: 3ff.), who engaged in acts of compassion and healing which affect crowds rather than leaders (9: 36; 14: 14; 15: 32). Final judgement (25: 31 ff.) is based on response to the hidden Son of Man in the destitute lot of his brethren (cf. 7: 21 ff; 10: 42 f.), who will be revealed as in some sense identified with "the least" at the moment of "apocalypse" on the Last Day.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus articulates a redefined understanding of kingship. This king is one who washes his disciples' feet. Jesus' reply to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world," is not a statement about the location of God's kingdom but concerns the origin of the inspiration for Jesus' view of the kingdom. Its norms are the result of God's spirit and righteousness. It is otherworldly only in the sense that it is wrong to suppose that the definition of kingship and kingdom is to be found in conventional regal persons and practice.

John the Baptist and Jesus, however, were both hailed as figures in the tradition of the prophets (Matt. 16: 17f., 23: 26ff.). Indeed, John was seen as an embodiment of Elijah's own person (Luke 1: 76; Matt. 11: 13). Like their contemporaries who suffered at the hands of the colonial power (e.g. Josephus, Jewish War vi. 281ff. and 301ff.; Antiquities xviii. 55ff.; xx. 97ff., 167ff., 185ff.; Goodman 1987; Gray 1993), they were thorns in the flesh of those in power. John, according to the Jewish writer Josephus, was suspected of fomenting revolution (Antiquities xviii. 116f.), and that seems to have been the attitude toward Jesus on the part of the hierarchy in Jerusalem, who feared Roman reprisals if Jesus were allowed to go on behaving as he was (John 11: 49). Indeed, in Mark's Gospel Jesus' action in the temple was the last straw which persuaded the authorities to assassinate him. Prophecy is no mere ecclesial office offering occasional admonition or pious platitudes. Like Jeremiah, the prophet must utter prophecies over many "nations, races, languages and kings" (Rev. 10: 11; cf. Jer. 1: 10) and be prepared to pay the price of so doing (Rev. 11: 7; cf. Mark 13: 9 ff.). It is not a specialist vocation, but that to which the church as a whole is called (Bauckham 1993). The continuation of that prophetic task is a central part of the life of the church whose role, like that of Jeremiah and John of Patmos, is to prophesy about many peoples and nations, and to discern the beast and the Babylon in the midst of inhumane actions (whether that be trade or economic life in general) which afflict human lives (Rev. 18: 13; and see further O'Donovan 1996: 11, 62 ff.).

To claim that the New Testament offers complete homogeneity in the way in which God and Caesar interrelate would be to ignore many contradictory strands. These are well represented in Luke-Acts. Familiar passages in Luke's Gospel suggest a different perspective from the conventional: the insignificant Mary and Jesus' birth in obscurity; John's social teaching (3: 10ff.); the anointing by the prostitute (7: 36ff.; cf. Mark 14: 3 ff.); the women followers and supporters (8: 2 f.; 13: 10; 23: 27; 23: 49, 55); Samaritans (10: 25ff.; 17: 11); the concern with the "prodigals" (15: 1 ff.) - all these in different ways "flesh out" the manifesto which Luke's Jesus offers (once again peculiar to this Gospel) in 4: 16. On the other hand, other texts in Luke offer a rather different slant. For example, Luke's version of the Last Supper includes sayings of Jesus at this point, some of which have parallels in other Gospels. One in particular is instructive. In their teaching on discipleship, Mark and Luke respectively have Jesus telling his disciples:


You know that among the gentiles the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and the great make their authority felt. It shall not be so among you; among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. For the son of man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many


Among the gentiles kings lord it over their subjects, and those in authority are given the title Benefactor. Not so with you: on the contrary, the greatest among you must bear himself like the youngest, the one who rules like one who serves. For who is greater - the one who sits at table or the servant who waits upon him? Surely the one who sits at table. Yet I am among you like a servant.

A comparison of these two passages reveals that Mark has a general "whoever wants to be first" whereas Luke has "the greatest" and "the one who rules." It has plausibly been suggested that unlike in Mark's community, Luke knew that the Christians he was addressing included persons of relatively high standing in society. No longer does the Christian community consist of the poor Jewish

Christians to whom Paul's churches sent their money and support. As in the church in Corinth there were some, perhaps even a significant number, alongside those who were not powerful or of noble birth, who needed to understand their responsibilities as disciples of one who came to preach good news to the poor.

Elsewhere, there are nods in the direction of accommodation, particularly in Acts. Ananias' and Sapphira's sin is deceiving the Holy Spirit rather than refusal to share their property, perhaps a tacit move away from the practice of the earliest church in Jerusalem. Zacchaeus does not have to sell all his goods. The ambiguity is nowhere more evident than in Luke 16, where the utter repudiation of Mammon and the disparagement of Dives sit uneasily with assertions that one has to use the Mammon of unrighteousness in order to be considered worthy of heaven. According to Acts 10, the account of Cornelius' conversion leaves open the question of the character of life of the newly converted gentile soldier - quite a remarkable omission, given that in the following century there was widespread doubt about whether a Christian should sign up for military service (Hornus 1980). Luke-Acts was probably written to churches that were relatively affluent. They had tasted of the good news of justification by faith and life in the Spirit, and needed to be reminded that there was more to faith than mere religion; and, most important of all, Luke wanted them to take seriously "the option for the poor" (Esler 1986).

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